PARALLEL VOICES, Edizioni Bongiovanni, Translated, annotated by Daniele D. Godor

252 pages with index, and 2 cd’s, USA $41.00

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This famous book by Giacomo Lauri-Volpi enjoyed 3 editions (1955, 1960, 1975) and has now been translated into English. It is one of the most important discussions of basically Italian singers heard by or performed with the famous tenor. The most detailed discussions are with the singers he had heard close-up, followed by serious analyses of singers he heard in person. Historical singers necessary to make points are discussed.  So, the book ranges from Pasta to Pavarotti, but only to sketch in the pre-1910 and post-1960 period. One of his first essays involving singers he heard were Maria Barrientos, and one of his last American singers was Gladys Swarthout. Having sung in North America, mostly with the Metropolitan, he has interesting takes on his rivals and compatriots.

The book would never have received its fame if Lauri-Volpi was outrageous in his opinions, or so blatant in pushing any agenda he had; instead the book is a study of nuances when discussing singers to whom he is partial or really doesn’t like. For example, his discussion of Caruso adheres to the generally accepted positives; there is no adulation but whenever he can he points out the negatives. In a sober and positive essay on Rosa Raisa he spends a third of his time discussing her triumph as Aida in 1915 at the Colon in Buenos Aires when Caruso was having an off-night, as though the spectators were present to witness a war between the returning star and the new star. Factually the incident was important because it was Caruso’s return to that prestigious theatre after a twelve-year absence and now with incredible world fame, and instead of the expected triumph, it was Raisa who was discovered and celebrated. 

He is quick to label Gigli a Fascist, but was he not one too? They were both ornaments of the regime in Rome, although throughout their careers Gigli was considered the more important. Lauri-Volpi lived his final years in Franco Spain. Along with Martinelli both spent their primes holding down the Italian tenor repertoire at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, but Gigli was always paid slightly more per performance. Lauri-Volpi does not say stupid things about Gigli, but he takes every opportunity to point out that his sweet tenor sound had strong elements of “falsetto” in its make-up.

I detected a not-so-subtle Anti-Americanism in his writing. The only Americans whom he praises to the hilt are Marion Anderson, Greek-American Maria Callas and Lawrence Tibbett. One has to remember that he was the Duke in the Saturday evening Rigoletto with the Marion Talley debut when half of her Tennessee hometown thronged the Met to cheer on a local girl made good. Not only the mayhem in the theatre but the media hype both before and after was for its time over-the top. It is incidental that the matinee performance was the Met debut of Lauritz Melchior, the only non-Italian school tenor he discusses in depth. He does concede that Melchior was a vast improvement over Rudolf Laubenthal and Walter Kirchoff who had been the Met’s “go-to” tenors for the Wagnerian roles. He considers Grace Moore, Richard Crooks, and to a certain extent even Tibbett inferior to their European counterparts. He hears in Grace Moore an insignificant sound and a soprano who sang uninteresting non-operatic material. I hear on recordings and broadcasts a high calibre voice of impressive size and solid training. He talks of America as a fascinating phenomenon with it glitz and riches, but without the European seasoning and history.

One of the few singers whom he heard often and with whom he sang (mostly Faust at the Met) is Feodor Chaliapin. He praises him to the sky. This is less to do with perfect vocalism than with his gigantic stage personality. Ezio Pinza, with whom he sang many times in New York, in his opinion, is on balance, less totally impressive than Cesare Siepi in the same repertory. He has much to say about Maria Jeritza, Rosa Ponselle and Claudia Muzio. 

If the reader has a good knowledge and appreciation of early to mid-20th Century operatic performing history they will find this a fantastic “read” for the intermingling of fact, theory, history and gossip. The book is somewhat like the Lauri-Volpi personality that you divine from his performance style, forceful, brilliant on top, well-constructed, but touched by the famous tenor ego. However, this book is unique and very highly recommended. 

Charles Mintzer, May 2023